By Herman Sillas
I was born in Los Angeles. My parents were of Mexican descent, and I have two sisters. My mother believed I had some artistic ability and enrolled me in a Saturday morning painting class when I was about 9 years old.
I became a lawyer in 1965 and was practicing law in Los Angeles. I became a part of a young Mexican-Americans group that met on Saturday mornings at a Mexican restaurant for breakfast. We contributed $10 each week into a fund for Mexican-American candidates seeking public offices. There were not many elected Mexican-Americans in those days. We wanted to change that. Jesse Unruh was going to run for governor and believed he could not win if he didn’t have a Mexican-American candidate on the Democratic Party’s ticket. Jesse spoke to our group and promised money for the campaign and for others to run. I was asked to run by the club, and
Unruh promised to endorse me.
On the last day to file for office, two Democratic candidates filed for the position I sought. I lost, and Unruh lost the governor’s race. I later was nominated for secretary of the state by the Democratic Party, but I lost. I returned to my law office and practice.
During the time I campaigned, I ran into Jerry Brown up and down this state while he was campaigning for governor.
After the election, Brown called on me to find him candidates for the numerous cabinet vacancies he had to fill. I leaped at the chance and covered California.
Resumes came in, and he began interviewing them. Then he asked me, “What position do you want?”
I had given the matter some thought in the event he asked me if I wanted a position. I wanted a position that would motivate other Mexican-Americans to seek positions. I answered, “DMV.”
He looked at me and said, “If you screw up, I’ll fire you.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
So I became the new director of DMV, to the regret of the employees of DMV. They had written Brown to reappoint the existing director.
I contacted my old friend, Charlie Ericksen, a newspaperman, and asked him to come to California. He came out, met with the governor and was given his approval. The next two years were the most exciting years of my life. Brown left us alone as we opened up positions for women and all ethnic backgrounds.
Brown sent a group of women to see me. They wanted childcare facilities for mothers who worked. I didn’t call Jerry; I just assumed he wanted it built. I found a woman who had been a DMV employee for many years, and I told her to find a place in our buildings to have a childcare facility. She proceeded and gave me updated reports. In a year, we had opened a childcare facility for DMV employees. The governor was impressed by our effort.
We changed renewal notices. We printed the driver’s license manual in six languages to make sure people with limited English-speaking skills could know the rules of the road. We had DMV offices opened on Saturday, so drivers did not have to miss work to get their licenses renewed. We had places in our offices where customers could leave their children while parents were in line. We registered voters in our offices. We had artists paint murals in our offices.
After two years, I was appointed the United States Attorney for Sacramento and Fresno. I later returned to private practice in Los Angeles and Sacramento. I had been painting for many years and began selling my pictures. I began writing columns for various newspapers.
What I have learned at this place is that the occupants living here are people with great experiences. The administration has approved making your experiences known to the rest of us. I have shared some of my experiences, and I would love to know your experiences and share them with all of us here.
Herman Sillas is an author and a resident of San Clemente and a former U.S District Attorney. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.